One year on, I’m still reeling from the wonderfulness, the exuberance and the curiosity of The Long Earth. This novel combined science fiction with fantasy, even magic, in a way that was and is utterly bewitching. Instead of exploring space, mankind has an infinity of Earths to visit, each one a step away from the next. And all you need to step is a few wires, a box, a switch and a potato. On Step Day, children across the planet made this machine, freely available on the internet, and took that step. They found themselves stranded, vomiting, on a different Earth,just one step away. Joshua, an orphan brought up by nuns, was able, through his unusual unaided stepping, to bring the children back home to a heroic reception.
Twenty-five years later, following on from his Long Earths crossing adventure aboard the Mark Twain airship in the company of Lobsang (an omnipresent ‘robot’ who believes he is the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman), Joshua is hired to undertake another great journey across the Long Earth. This time, though, Joshua must discover where the trolls – the warm, kind, strong and tuneful beings who call across the Earths each evening in song – have gone. The trolls are, it’s possible to say, the lifeblood of the Long Earth. Drawn to humans and all other life out of a desire for entertainment, the trolls’ presence is indicative of health and well-being. Their withdrawal from mankind, now stretched so runinously across the Earths, is a sign that all is not well. Joshua’s job is to bring the trolls back.
Before reading any further, I would strongly urge you to read The Long Earth. By doing so, you will become familiar with the pattern of the Long Earths as you follow them westwards – the cornlands, the deserts, the iced worlds and even the jokers, the oddities that make no sense. This might be a world inhabited with nothing but butterflies or a planet of ice, or one populated by gigantic kangaroos or lizards. Sometimes, the world might be missing altogether, smashed into oblivion by an asteroid.
In The Long War, we follow a number of airship journeys westwards – and eastwards (we are assured this is political rather than geographical direction) – across the worlds. Aboard the Benjamin Franklin, Maggie Kauffman leads a crew whose mission is to count the number of American citizens who have taken that step into parallel Americas and bring them back under the taxation umbrella of the United States of Datum Earth. As the Benjamin Franklin journeys ever further away from the homeland, the questions arise concerning just what these distant, tiny colonies receive in return for their tax dollars. Maggie is no fool. As she journeys west, she too learns that what really matters is the treatment of humans towards the trolls.
There are some big themes here. The Long War reminds us of the dangers facing the Long Earth due to its over population, all indicated by how Yellowstone bubbles and fizzles. But the journeys across the Long Earths, by Joshua, by Maggie, by an eastern mission using a protegee teenager Roberta, or by Sally, Joshua’s friend from the previous novel, all highlight the danger facing the future of man. The element of chance – the meteor that destroyed the dinosaurs may just as easily destroy humans on a different timeline – is more than ever something to take a gamble on.
The Long Earth was in all probability my favourite novel of 2012. This does put much more pressure on the sequel The Long War. I’m relieved, delighted and not surprised that The Long War seizes the threads of the previous novel in both hands and continues onwards, as robust and witty as before.
The Long War is a very funny novel, its jokes aided by our understanding of the predecessor The Long Earth. There are frequent joking references to Star Trek as well as other bits and pieces of culture (massive chunks of data are called Godzillabytes) and what made me laugh was the British experience of the mass exodus of steppers which the great and the good described as the ‘Great Bog Off’. There are debates about the nature of God – is Lobsang God? What about the nun Agnes and the various priests and reverends we meet through the novel? The mischievous humour of Pratchett is in much evidence here – for example, how to tell the real and the unreal apart – people and other beings should pray for hours and see if God can tell the difference – the Turin Test. Pratchett’s wit and optimistic lightness is offset with the scope of Baxter’s vision. By the end of it, I just wanted to stand and applaud.
Quite apart from laughing outloud at pieces of it, or feeling your jaw drop with the sheer shock of some of the things we encounter, The Long War is a richly humane novel. There are characters here so far removed from our understanding and yet we can sympathise with them. There are endless, countless, infinite, number of possibilities for colonies that we meet through the Long Earth and yet all are slightly familiar. Through and above it all are the trolls, creatures that Maggie gets to know and us too, through the novel’s war against the racism and ignorance of many of the settlers.
Aside from the riches of the Earths, the airships, the different crews, the strange and frightening creatures that are encountered, the trolls and the adventures to be had in these worlds, there is joy to be found in the little touches, references and asides. The Long War is an odd book just as The Long Earth is an odd book but this oddness is carried high upon great themes of slavery, racism, religion, rivalry, control, ecology and humanity. Lobsang, despite all his peculiarities, continues to be our ears through the strange, wonderful journey. The Long War, as with The Long Earth, is fed by our curiosity. Once again we travel into a potential of endless possibilities as we step through over ten, twenty million Earths. Anything can happen and many things do.
The Long War is not the first in the series and so it can never retain within it that glorious shock and wonderment so prevalent in The Long Earth as we learnt what kind of journey we were on. Nevertheless, this is more than compensated for by the sheer wonder of the worlds we encounter and the character growth that we witness. In The Long War we have the chance to learn more about the characters and gain more of an inkling of what they might be after and what they want to leave behind. We know the characters better now. No wonder, then, that there are moments that put a tear in the eye.
The Long War had a great task to fulfil – to be worthy of The Long Earth. It took a few chapters for the momentum of the swing to gather but once it did then the ride was superb.
The Long Earth